Shiur #12: Prayer

  • Rav Joshua Amaru

1.         Introduction


            Last week I discussed the notion of avodat Hashem as embodied in the Temple ritual, setting aside the more familiar experience of avodat Hashem in prayer.  The centrality of prayer in our religious lives, as avodat Hashem par excellence, is not in question.  An investigation of Jewish prayer is worthy of a whole series of shiurim and I cannot begin to do justice to it here.  The following is merely my attempt to outline the basic alternatives that we must consider if we want to understand prayer.  I do not think of these alternatives as mutually exclusive. They stand in a dialectical relationship with one another, such that not only can different people legitimately understand what prayer is about in radically different ways, but even one individual is best served not by adopting one position but rather by maintaining a creative tension amongst them.


            Jewish tradition divides prayer into three different types: praise, petition and thanksgiving.  A cursory examination of the liturgy will reveal that the liturgy as a whole is structured around this division.  It is worth noting that these categories of prayer, in that order, are understood by the Rambam to be not merely descriptions of the liturgy but prescriptions as to the proper way of going about prayer.[1]  In the following, I am going to focus on petition, which was understood by the Rabbis as lying at the core of prayer, to the extent that the word tefilla, prayer, was translated into Aramaic as rachmi, literally, “[asking for] mercy.”[2]


2.         Theories of Prayer


            Any attempt to make sense of petitioning God must address the fundamental question: what (or whom) is prayer for?  We are faced with a dilemma.  On the one hand, the All-Knowing Master of the Universe already knows what is in our hearts and is not moved by praise or by petition.  “Ve-gam netzach Yisrael lo yeshakker ve-lo yinnachem, ki lo adam hu le-hinnachem”-  “The Eternal of Israel will not lie or change his mind, for He is not a man that changes his mind” (I Shmuel 15:29).  Divine judgment and justice are not subject to appeal or revision, and human petition to God is necessarily futile.  On the other hand, prayer is a central component of our religious consciousness.  The words of the liturgy imply that we are attempting to influence the King of Kings, to invoke His mercy with our petition, to change our fate by asking.


As with any real dilemma, the options are two: either we can embrace one horn of the dilemma while explaining away the other, or we can show how the conceptual space is not exhausted by the dilemma – there are alternatives that allow us to preserve at least some of the advantages of both sides.  In the following I want to briefly examine two classical approaches, each of which indeed embraces one side of the issue.  Then I want to outline two alternative approaches that try to negotiate their way between these extremes. 


3.         The Anthropocentric Conception of Prayer


The conception of prayer most prevalent amongst the classical medieval Jewish philosophers is articulated most fully by Rav Yosef Albo in his Sefer Ha-Ikkarim.[3] Human beings cannot change God: as opposed to a king of flesh and blood, the King of Kings, who is perfect and eternal, is not subject to influence and not affected by us.  Prayer should be conceived as a fundamentally human-focused activity; in other words, prayer is anthropocentric.  Though addressed to God, the act of prayer does not affect the Divine – it does not "work" by changing God's mind.  Rather, it affects the pray-er and changes his or her personality and standing.  Prayer is an act that gains one merit: in praying, in turning to God and crying out to Him, a person becomes more worthy and more deserving, and divine judgment may change in light of this change.  God does not change – the person praying is changed, and this can at times lead to the realization of one's prayers. 


            As one would imagine, one who subscribes to the anthropocentric approach to prayer has an easier time accommodating prayers of praise and thanksgiving than prayers of petition.  In encountering the greatness of God and His Creation, he or she is inspired and perhaps obliged to sing His praises; likewise the human object of divine grace is morally obligated to express thanksgiving.  Petition, however, remains a problem from this perspective: it is not clear what human good is achieved by the detailing of our needs before an all-knowing God and begging for His grace.


4.         The Theurgical Conception of Prayer


At the other end of the spectrum lies what we can call theurgical prayer.  Theurgy is an activity in which human action affects or influences the divine, through prayers or rituals.  Praying becomes part of a larger spectrum of religious ritual activity that is dedicated to changing and improving the spiritual world.  Prayer, so to speak, can “work," in that it can effect a change in spiritual reality.


In the Kabbalistic tradition we find a great deal of sophisticated theurgical thinking.  Such notions as “raising the sparks,” and “tikkun olamot elyonim” (repairing of upper worlds) are metaphors for the ways that prayer (and mitzvot) can make a change on a higher plane. These approaches posit a complex theological reality, of which the ten sefirot are the most basic components.  In performing mitzvot, and especially through prayer and specific kavvanot,[4] a person can make a positive difference to spiritual reality in a way that reverberates also in the everyday world.[5]  The perfection of God is protected by the fact that divinity is mediated through this complex reality, such that God's higher aspect remains perfect while He grants people the ability to affect His lower aspects.


Though there is great power and nuance to be found in this approach, there are two aspects of it that I, at least, find very difficult.  First of all, one must affirm the reality of an elaborate spiritual reality that is subject to human influence in a manner that appears magical.  The gap between the magicians and diviners forbidden by the Torah and permitted “magical” practices becomes very small.  Furthermore, the conception of influence on God as quasi-magical promotes a kind of mechanistic theology.  God is conceived almost as a force rather than as a person, and someone who has the correct knowledge and technology can manipulate this force.  It goes without saying that this is not how advocates of this approach conceive of themselves.


These extreme approaches mirror one another’s basic strengths and weaknesses.  The anthropocentric approach preserves the immaculateness of its conception of God, at the expense of emptying the liturgy of much of its content.  God is glorified at the expense of religion.  The theurgical approach strikingly empowers the religious personage in granting it the ability to impact the Divine; religion becomes the tale of the empowerment of humanity vis-א-vis God.  There is a certain irony about these opposing approaches to prayer: in order to glorify God, one approach tends to turn the focus of prayer away from God and towards a kind of self-focused meditation.  The other approach, in understanding prayer as truly directed at God, threatens to conceive of God in a limited human image.


It is important to appreciate that these brief summaries border on caricatures of what are profound attempts to grapple with the concept of prayer and, more generally, the relationship between the human and the divine.  Nonetheless, the difficulties of each of them are inherent in the basic approach and difficult to soften.  I do not think that we need to choose between these two extremes, and in the following I want to present two alternatives. 


5.         Rav Soloveitchik's Existentialist Conception of Prayer


            In his writings posthumously published in Worship of the Heart, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (hereafter, "the Rav") elaborates a conception of prayer that marginalizes the question of how or whether prayer "works."  Rather, claims the Rav, prayer must be understood as primarily a medium of religious experience, as a mode of forming a relationship with God:


The efficacy of prayer is not the central term of inquiry in our philosophy of avoda she-ba-lev….  The basic function of prayer is not its practical consequences but the metaphysical formation of a fellowship consisting of God and man.[6]


Prayer is the realization of a dialogical relationship between the individual and God, in which the pray-er is the speaker and God is the listener.  Its parallel is prophecy, in which these roles are reversed.  In both cases, communication leads to communion, and the human comes into contact with the divine.


Petitional prayer is at center of this religious experience.  The Rav emphasizes the fact that petitional prayer is a mitzva, a religious obligation.  In a person's realization of his or her utter dependence upon God, in recognition of his or her existential "depth crisis," both the need and the obligation to call out to God are formed.  Every person must realize that despite the greatness of the human personality, each individual is a “being born out of nothingness and running down to nothingness.”[7]  We are equipped with infinite imagination and desire but “must be satisfied with a restricted, bounded existence.”[8] The mitzva of prayer includes the responsibility that a person realize this fact and experience the distress attendant upon it.  From the depths of crisis, a person is drawn to call upon God out of the realization of his utter dependence.  This call, when issued from the depths of the human personality, brings about the miraculous manifestation of the divine presence. 


The Rav's analysis of prayer, both in general and in his interpretations of particular prayers, is deserving of far more attention than I can allow myself here.  Anyone interested in enriching his or her understanding and experience of prayer should delve into Worship of the Heart.  I will make just one final point about the Rav's conception of prayer.  Though he sidesteps the question of whether and how prayer works, it is clear that the Rav's position is closer to the classical philosophical anthropocentric perspective than it is to the Kabbalistic theurgical one.  Though the Rav does give an account of the petitional language of prayer, there is something frustrating about a focus on petition that does not make much room for the realization of that petition which is its content.  It is no doubt true that there a kind of intersubjective communion that is achieved between a petitioner and a benefactor. In the case of prayer, where God has the role of benefactor, it is also true that seeking that communion is a worthy activity.  Yet when people pray for something, for the healing of a sick loved one, for example, they are interested not merely in the communion with God but (perhaps even primarily) in the result.  It is very difficult to give an account of petitional prayer that does not somehow relate to prayer’s efficacy.


6.         Prayer as Intersubjective Influence


I now turn to a final conception of prayer, which I think is very widespread; it is the simple meaning of the liturgy as well as the mainstream understanding of prayer found in both the Torah and Chazal.  What I have to add is merely a philosophical defense of the idea that petitioning God is an actual request of an individual to his Maker, which includes at least the possibility that the request will be answered affirmatively.  It is explicitly an attempt to influence and impact upon the Divine. 


How can such a conception of prayer be accommodated to the idea of God as transcendent, complete, perfect and all-knowing?  The short answer is that it cannot – but that is not a tragedy.  As I have emphasized in previous shiurim, insistence on the transcendence of God as our point of departure produces nothing but silence.  We cannot think about or relate to a fully transcendent God – all we can do is point to the presence of a being beyond our ability to grasp.  Yet the transcendent God, in His chesed (grace), has chosen to manifest Himself to us, as a subject, with various personae: the King of Kings, the Lawgiver, the merciful Father, etc.  Our relationship with God is necessarily limited and constrained by our own limitations, and all of religion is mediated by the varying conceptions we have of God.  None of these are complete, but by negotiating our way amongst them we can accomplish, to some limited extent, the seemingly impossible and have a relationship with the Divine.  That relationship can include situations in which we make requests of God and they are answered. 


Yet even within our human conceptions of God, petitional prayer poses a problem.  If God is the ultimate arbiter of justice, who determines the fate of everyone and everything in accordance with its just deserts, then even the hope that God might "change His mind" because of someone's petition amounts to a scandal.  Should a judge change his verdict because the convicted criminal falls to his knees and begs for mercy?  Doing so would make a mockery of justice!  How is petitioning God for mercy any different?


The key to appreciating how influencing God can avoid a mechanistic theurgy, on the one hand, and a travesty of justice, on the other, is to focus on the intersubjective element.  In a relationship with another person, one can affect another's behavior in two different ways. One way is by causally manipulating him or her – either by constraining what they can do or by “pushing emotional buttons” such that they react in some foreseen way.  Thus the pitiable begging of the defendant can influence a judge's verdict against his better judgment.  Alternatively, a child can have a public tantrum to get what he wants, causing his parent, desperate to avoid humiliation, to give in against his better judgment just in order to ensure quiet.  It is absurd to claim that human beings could influence God "to act against His better judgment" in an analogous way. 


But there is another sort of influence.  How we relate to another is not indifferent to the nature of the relationship or to the forms in which it is expressed.  This is perhaps easiest to see with parents and children.  When the same child asks nicely for the candy, the parent might be inclined to loosen up the rules a bit (no candy before dinner).  This is not necessarily the parent acting against his better judgment, but in accordance with it.  It is possible to err in the direction of being overly rigid, even in enforcing appropriate rules, while it may be preferable to let things go occasionally.  When these occasions are, and how frequent they are, will be functions of the relationship between the parent and the child.  The trust the parent has in the child, as well as the circumstances, which include whether the child has asked for a special treat and how he has asked, all play a role. 


Chazal (the Rabbis of the Talmud) understood a person's relationship to God in an analogous fashion.  They make use of different images to represent the ways that God relates to the world.  Most prominent are the images of God as judge, exhibiting the attribute of justice, and the image of God as merciful Father, exhibiting the attribute of mercy.  The scandal arises when we presume that justice is to be equated with some sort of ultimate rightness, the correct way for God to manage the world.  If so, then any divergence from that is a scandal.  But the Rabbis did not conceive of justice in this comprehensive fashion.  A judge must never allow his judgment to diverge from the fair and the just.  But God is not merely a judge.  Justice is but one of the ways that divine concern for the world is manifest, but it should not be confused with some sort of ultimate rightness or divine "best judgment."  At other times, God's "best judgment" is manifest through mercy, though it may not be accessible to us, from our limited human perspective, to understand when justice is appropriate and when mercy is appropriate.  We hold the power to affect when mercy overrides justice because we are in a relationship with God and the balance of mercy and justice is affected by the nature of that relationship, including how and what we ask for.


7.         Conclusion


The four conceptions of prayer outlined here are all important and are all elements of what people mean by prayer.  I do not want to choose between them – on the contrary, different individuals will be drawn to one over the other in accordance with one's other beliefs and the modes in which one relates to God.  Even a single individual might at different times in his of her life find one mode more resonant than another.  Prayer is central to religious life – it is the most explicit way in which we relate to God.  It is therefore an experience deserving of ongoing attention and revision as one grows and develops as a human being. 




[1] Rambam, Hilkhot Tefilla 1:2.  Rav Soloveitchik has delved at length into the meaning of this prescriptive order.  See his Worship of the Heart (Jersey City, Ktav: 2003) pp. 27-28 and especially 148-152.

[2] See Berakhot 20b.

[3] Ma’amar 4, chapters 16-18.

[4] Kavvanot, literally, intentions, are Kabbalistic meditations or mindsets associated with specific rituals and prayers. 

[5] See Shalom Rosenberg, “Prayer and Jewish Thought: Approaches and Problems (A Survey),” in Prayer in Judaism,ed. Gabriel H. Cohn and Harold Fisch (Northvale, New Jersey, 1996), 73-77, for a survey of the notion of theurgical prayer in Judaism as well as references.  See pp. 77-80 of the same article in which Rosenberg describes another Kabbalistic tradition that he calls “mystical prayer,” which contains both meditative and theurgical elements.

[6] Worship of the Heart, p. 35.

[7] Ibid. p. 36.

[8] Ibid p. 34.